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Bonsai, Living Culture of Japan.
Bonsai is the Japanese art form of cultivating and training one or more miniature trees in a
shallow container primarily for the challenge of creating and caring for the plant and the pleasure
The word bonsai literally means “plantings in a tray”. This tradition dates back over a thousand
years and miniature landscaping first became popular in Japan from around the 8th century.
This Japanese tradition is now an established art form with followers in their thousands all over
One of the oldest bonsai is a 500 year old tree known as the Sandai Shogun no Matsu, and is designated
a National Treasure. The elegant pine tree was documented as having been cared for by the Third
Tokugawa Shogun, Iemitsu, who was said to be a bonsai enthusiast, so much so that he spent more time
tending to his bonsai than he did to his duties as Shogun.
The practice of bonsai uses cultivation techniques including careful pruning and defoliation, root reduction
and potting to achieve an effect whereby by small trees mimic the shape and style of full sized, mature
trees in the wild. Specialised tools for maintaining the bonsai, pottery for housing the plants and care
techniques have been developed to ensure the trees remain healthy.
Bonsai can be developed from almost any branch producing wood stemmed tree or shrub. Once a
specimen is chosen from a regular stock seedling, cutting, or young tree, it is lovingly nurtured and
shaped until reaching a desired size, when it is replanted in a shallow container further restricting its
growth. Bonsai are not like the cultivation of other plants, where the end result is for food or medicinal
purposes, but purely for the enjoyment of creating, caring and admiring.
Japanese traditional bonsai philosophies and aesthetic design rules are usually adhered to in order to
produce the best results. The trees are usually kept well under a meter in height, and proportions are
expected to match full-grown trees, hence small trees with large leaves are avoided. The work of the
bonsai artist, such as scars from pruning or marks from shaping should not be noticeable, and the all
over appearance should be as natural as possible.
Bonsai pots known as hachi are also fast becoming collectors items, with manufacturers in areas such as
Tokoname in Aichi Prefecture recognized as being among the best. While bonsai refers to the use of shallower
pots in which to grow the trees, another similar style is known as Hachi-no-Ki uses deeper pots while
maintaining the trees short stature.
A popular story depicted in woodblock prints, and the performing arts of Noh and Kabuki tells of an impoverished samurai who is visited by a wandering monk one cold winters night. The samurai, in keeping his guest warm, sacrifices his three prized bonsai as firewood. It turns out, the monk was in fact an official in the guise of a monk, who later richly rewards the samurai with lands associated with the trees he burned, Sakura (cherry) Matsu (pine) and Ume (plum).
Today, like much of Japanese culture, the beautiful bonsai are becoming very popular world wide.
Over 1200 books on bonsai are available in over 26 languages and some 1500 bonsai clubs are active
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